‘Who Is America?’ In the post-truth world Sacha Baron Cohen’s comedy is less shocking than reality

Dressed as over-the-top characters, Cohen tricked politicians into saying outlandish things about gun control. The problem is that, in 2018, they say this stuff freely anyway

It’s been a long, long time since Kazakh journalist Borat bumbled through an American antiques shop, knocking over countless priceless artefacts as the owner looked on in abject horror. The world has changed in the intervening 12 years. Or perhaps its true nature has simply become clearer. We know now that the improbable is likely, that stupidity is in bottomless supply. President Trump, an oily billionaire with a complex network of debt, was ushered into office by working class voters who considered him more trustworthy than actual politicians.

Like the feature-length Borat, Sacha Baron Cohen’s new series, This Is America, sees the comedian disguise himself to coax unsuspecting interviewees into saying and doing ridiculous things. In last night’s first episode, broadcast on Channel 4, he played a series of exaggerated characters with the aim of exposing the political and social rifts currently dividing America. Fat suits, masks, ridiculous outfits – all were deployed to exploit the ignoramuses that Cohen met.

In the current climate, though, did he really need to exert these efforts to have them make outrageous statements? Trump says jaw-droppingly dumb, crass, insensitive, xenophobic, sexist, inaccurate – you name it – things every time someone puts him anywhere near a microphone. There was nothing in Cohen’s show as stunningly repulsive as Trump’s assertion, caught on camera in 2005, that “when you’re a star” you can “grab [women] by the pussy.”

The week before last, Trump’s former chief strategist Steven Bannon, a man who looks like’s he spent a decade or more making tearful confessions in the Diary Room on Celebrity Big Brother, told The Sunday Times – in a cover story! – that he believes transgenderism is a “marginal, freak issue” and “fears” feminism because he doesn’t “want to see the patriarchy overturned”. And the journalist that interviewed him didn’t even have to wear a daft wig or a mankini.

With a comedy moustache stuck in the middle of his face, Cohen played alt-right commentator Dr. Billy Wayne Ruddick, Jr. PHD, who aims to “confront the mainstream media” and “take ‘em down one by one.” He sat opposite Trump’s socialist political opponent Bernie Sanders and asked: “Instead of complain about the 1%, why not take the rest of America and put them into the 1%?” Ruddick produced a graph that purported to prove this achievable. Bernie, who wasn’t in on the joke, responded: “Billy, I don’t know what you’re talking about, I really don’t.” The politician’s response was used as the scene’s punchline, though it only really proved Cohen’s inability to trick Sanders into embarrassment.

There was more. Cohen dressed up as Dr. Nira Cain-N’Degeocello, a lecturer on Gender Studies and a liberal Democratic activist, who dined with a Republican couple baffled by his confession that his wife cheated on him with a dolphin. As stocky British ex-con Rick Sherman, who creates artwork using his own faeces – or, as he pronounces the word “feekies” – he fooled an art dealer into handing over her own pubic hair to use as a paint brush.

Sacha Baron Cohen as Col. Erran Morad in ‘Who Is America’?

Silly, schoolboy stuff, and a slightly mean-spirited approach that now feels woefully dated. Da Ali G Show, which saw the privately educated Cohen pretend to be a working class oik, first aired in 2000, yet his tactic remains the same – sit opposite an oblivious interviewee, attempt to show them up, move on. For a more sophisticated approach to a similar schtick, see Philomena Cunk, a character created and played by the comedian Diane Morgan, whose interviewees seem to be at least partially in on the joke, meaning that she becomes the punchline.

Only once, in the episode’s final 10-minutes, did This Is America actually strike its target. Dressed as an Israeli colonel named Erran Morad, Cohen met pro-gun Philip Van Cleave, the President of Virginia Citizen’s Defense League. Cleave supported Morad’s suggestion that armed toddlers could see off school shooters, and noted that they could be “very effective soldiers” because they haven’t yet developed a conscience. Well, of course he did. Cohen even coaxed Cleave into appearing in an infomercial for “Gunimals” – firearms buried in stuffed toys with names such as ‘Puppy Pistol’ – and to utter the lines: “Remember to point Puppy Pistol’s mouth at the bad man. If he has a big fat tummy, point it there.” Well, of course he did.

A procession of moronic politicians lined up to appear on camera and pledge allegiance to the silly scheme. Well, of course they did! It used to be surprising to hear politicians display this level of ignorance, but would you be really shocked to read an actual news story about this? Last year, former Republican nominee Sarah Palin claimed that she hasn’t suffered sexual harassment because “packs” a gun. Yes, Cohen’s covert approach feels lame in 2018, but what’s more troubling is that it’s not even necessary any more.